by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | September 29, 2023
Season 7, Episode 8: ‘The Owl’
Mike Prince is trying to do the right thing. A man for whom his wife, Andy, cares deeply has had a mountain-climbing accident in the Himalayas. He is injured and alone, in the path of a storm, running out of food and stranded on the Chinese side of the mountains.
Mike has the resources to arrange a successful extraction, even under these physically and politically dangerous conditions. To rescue the man means risking an international incident and potentially ending his presidential campaign. Not to rescue him means the man will die, and Andy will lose someone who is more to her than a friend.
So Mike does what you or I might like to think we would do under these circumstances. Risks be damned, he orders the rescue mission — confident that his seasoned pros won’t be caught but prepared to take the political hit if they do.
At least, that’s the story it seems he’s telling himself, until circumstances on the ground change — or rather, until he changes circumstances on the ground.
Despite his distaste for old-money blue bloods, Mike is dragged by his political adviser, Bradford, to a semiannual forest conclave for the rich and powerful called the Owl. In this secluded environment — clearly modeled after the Bohemian Grove, right down to the choice of its avian mascot — the nearly all-male elite can mix, mingle, urinate in the open air, go streaking through the snow, participate in tests of strength with offensive names and generally enjoy the rights and privileges of being right and privileged.
There are two star attractions at this winter’s gathering, besides Prince himself. One is his chief political rival, the centrist Democratic governor Nancy Dunlop (Melina Kanakaredes, having a whale of a time playing a swaggering jerk). The other is the group’s ultimate political kingmaker and gray eminence, George Pike IV (Griffin Dunne, as quietly wolfish and menacing as a well-cast Imperial officer in a “Star Wars” project). Known to friends and foes alike as “Fourth,” Pike is there to decide which of these self-conceptualized common-sense mavericks deserves his backing.
He gets his answer in the most horrifying sequence this show has seen since Bobby Axelrod paid a doctor to let a patient die. During a fireside chat in which Gov. Dunlop pushes for a nuclear-free world, Prince mocks the idea as hippy-dippy stuff and forcefully argues for the embrace of first-strike strategies. How would he know when to call down the fire? Well, he says, he would have to be sure, and being sure about things is why the people will want his finger on the button in the first place.
Watching this room full of rich men discuss the incineration of millions as if they’re swapping fantasy football strategies is repulsive; there’s no other way to put it. It’s everything wrong with how decisions are made in this country, as wealthy people in no danger of facing consequences for their actions debate idly which lives are and aren’t worthless when stacked against the overriding importance of their own comfort and ambitions.
Prince in particular talks as if he were purposefully demonstrating the wisdom of Chuck, who is also in attendance with his old-guard father; his friend and lieutenant Ira; and somehow, Charles’s personal Dr. Feelgood, Dr. Swerdlow. Chuck’s quest to stop Prince from reaching the White House — like the parallel sabotage campaign led by Wendy, Wags and Taylor — is predicated on the idea that no man this free of self-doubt belongs anywhere near power, let alone the kind of power present in the nuclear football. (A friendly but rueful conversation between Chuck and Prince as they pee against some trees hashes this point out directly.)
Unfortunately for Chuck, Fourth doesn’t see things his way. In Prince’s tough talk about the bomb, Fourth hears a man willing to thumb his nose at the “nanny state” — a man truly made for a world where there is no black and white, no good and evil. Like many to-the-manner-born elites, Fourth is a natural constituent for a form of politics run by “big men with agendas — not the populace, not the rule of law and certainly not the voters.”
Chuck leaves, visibly shaken. If self-styled guardians of the soul of the nation like Fourth don’t understand that they’re selling that soul by backing Prince, what hope does he have?
Which raises another question: Is “Billions” the most chilling show on television right now? And I’m not talking about the wintry setting of this week’s episode. Like virtually every episode since Prince’s presidential ambitions became clear, “The Owl” casts an unflinching eye on the danger posed to American democracy by megalomaniacal strongmen, by the ultra-rich, and especially by the people who are both.
In a sense, this is covered ground for the show. Chuck already took on billionaire overreach when he battled Bobby Axelrod for five seasons. His conflicts with the pointedly unnamed presidential administration in power in the show’s universe from 2017 to 2021, represented by odious officials like Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat and Todd Krakow, made a clear argument that authoritarianism, corruption and reactionary politics are correlated phenomena.
But since Axe never got directly involved in politics, and since the former president was never depicted as an on-screen character, “Billions” has never had such an opportunity to explore all these issues up close by embodying them in one man. And in an episode that depicts the threat he presents in the starkest, most existential terms imaginable, it’s worth noting what that one man actually does.
Mike Prince was trying to do the right thing, you remember. Even at the Owl, he, Bradford and Scooter hovered over his phone, listening for updates on the rescue mission. Then something goes south, just as the chopper reaches the stranded hiker: the Chinese military shows up out of nowhere, taking the man into custody and forcing Prince’s team to abort the mission lest they get involved in a shooting war with a foreign government.
But here’s the thing: No one knows better than Andy that what Mike Prince wants, Mike Prince gets. If this rescue didn’t work, then, it’s because Mike didn’t want it to work. Confronted with this, Prince admits it: He tipped off the Chinese government and ended the mission after Fourth encouraged him to resolve the situation without provoking the Chinese government — or being seen as surrendering to them either.
“You wanted him off the mountain,” he rationalizes half-heartedly. “He’s off the damn mountain.” The Himalayas are cold. Mike Prince is colder.
- As dark as this episode gets, there’s also a scene in which Kanakaredes and Rick Hoffman get on the floor and leg-wrestle with their shirts off. In general, when presented with two roads diverging in a wood, “Billions” takes the path more ridiculous, and that has made all the difference.
- To its credit, “Billions” has long presented sexual fetishism and kink not as a source of comedy (OK, not only as a source of comedy), let alone as a marker of deep psychological dysfunction. It has always been presented more as just a part of the sex lives of countless basically normal people (OK, normal by “Billions” standards). It picks up this torch again in a subplot involving Wags’s discovery that he has a certain scatological fetish that initially sends his wife, Chelz (Caroline Day), fleeing from the room. (“Stop saying words out of your mouth!” she stammers in one of the best lines of the night.) When Wendy explains to Chelz that the fetish represents Wags’s desire to be loved unconditionally, despite even the most repugnant parts of himself, Chelz is into it — but for Wags, the explanation kills the mood, like a magician revealing how the trick is done. And I call shenanigans! Figuring out why you’re into the weird stuff you’re into makes it more fun, not less.
- “I love breathing the same country air that Goldwater did.” Only Charles Rhoades Sr. could describe getting back to nature in these terms.
- “Ham can cram in with Woof,” says Charles at one point, referring to reshuffled sleeping arrangements among his Owl buddies. With nicknames like that, this is possibly the most “old-money Ivy League alumnus” thing anyone has ever said on television.
- When Prince learns the identity of Andy’s missing friend, whom he realizes is one of her open-marriage romances, he says flatly: “Ah, Derek. Good old Derek.” It’s good to hear the note of hurt and embarrassment in his voice; it’s an all-too-rare sign that he’s human.
- The episode ends with an image of hooded, chanting Owl members setting the towering wooden statue of their mascot ablaze. It’s a creepy image but also a gorgeous one. “Billions” is a very good-looking show; I can think of a few fantasy epics that could learn a thing or two from how it shot those cloaked figures in the torch-lit snow.
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